TALLAHASSEE — A nonprofit group that provides eyeglasses to poor children in Florida has been ordered to reimburse more than $100,000 to the state in questionable expenses including hotel bills, legal fees and payments to a lobbyist.
Florida's Vision Quest of Orange City has until Friday to pay the Department of Health nearly $103,000. The company is not willing to pay.
Vision Quest president Nancy Jeppesen disputes some of the state's findings but agrees her firm can do a better job of tracking how it spends public money.
"Are there expenses in there that should not have been in there?" she said. "I think so."
But Jeppesen says she has found $111,000 in vision exams that her bookkeeper inadvertently did not charge to the state, which would offset what the state is seeking.
"The Department of Health is being an ostrich right now with their head in the sand," Jeppesen said. "We have allowable expenses to the tune of $111,000."
The state counters that it would be unprecedented to agree to pay charges that weren't submitted in the proper fiscal year.
"We can't tell whether those expenses were legitimate or not," said Leah Gardner, an accountant who monitors contracts for the Health Department.
Among the expenses flagged by the state:
• $28,500 as a retainer to Hebrock Steiner, a Tallahassee lobbying firm. Jeppesen said the firm provided fundraising advice, not lobbying.
• $3,100 in travel expenses for Jeppesen and a co-worker to go to the 2007 International Vision Expo in Las Vegas. Jeppesen said the expo resulted in the donation of $30,000 in equipment.
• $27,000 to forgive a 2005 loan from Vision Quest to Jeppesen and her ex-husband, who was Vision Quest's president. Jeppesen said the loan was beyond the scope of the state's review.
Gardner said an internal report nearly five years ago recommended the Health Department strengthen its contract monitoring. The agency pays for services from more than 600 providers.
Florida's Vision Quest employs seven people and received $728,000 from the state last year, a $200,000 reduction due to budget cuts. It served more than 19,000 children last year.
"This program costs us a lot more than what the state gives us," Jeppesen said.
Florida's Vision Quest began in Orange County in 1994 and quickly expanded into a statewide program. For the past 10 years, the firm's mobile unit has traveled the state providing vision screenings and eyeglasses to children, except in Miami-Dade, where the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind runs a similar program.
Two South Florida legislators are citing the questionable expenses in an effort to shift some of Vision Quest's grant to the Miami provider.
"What irritates me no end are some of the issues in the audit," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, a member of a Senate budget committee on health spending.
A second lawmaker, Rep. Luis Garcia, R-Miami, wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist last week to urge that $137,000 of Vision Quest's budget be paid to Miami Lighthouse, which receives no state money. Jeppesen said her company provides all eyeglasses for Miami-Dade students.
Lori Rowe, who oversees the Health Department budget as a deputy to Crist, said no legislative authority in the state budget allows a shift of any of Vision Quest's money to Lighthouse.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.